That Bush connection

Josh Keating over on FP gives us the top 10 stories you might have missed in 2008. I particularly like this one:

So why was $176 million of the aid money earmarked for loans to businesses—including $30 million to a real estate developer for a luxury hotel: the 127,000-square-meter Park Hyatt in downtown Tbilisi, an area that was not at all damaged in the war? The 183-room, five-star hotel will include 70 luxury condominiums, a fine-dining restaurant, conference facilities, and a health spa with juice bar.

No answer is given, but I think you could make a stab at it.

There are actually lots of new plush hotels being built in Tbilisi at the moment, and the Park Hyatt is just another. I was told all about them when I was in Georgia in September. I have sent an email to a friend in Georgia asking for some details but as best I can remember the firm building the Park Hyatt is backed by one of those nice oligarchs. That oligarch has particular connections to George Bush’s brother Neil.

Not that I’m implying anything untoward, mind you. I won’t say anything else unless I have some information confirmed.

Nakalakevi, Georgia

I visited the ruins at Nakalakevi (Nokakalevi, ნოქალაქევი) in Georgia for only a brief time. You can read a history of the city here. Some interesting notes about the city:

1200 BC: Jason and the Argonauts’ mythical journey to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece

Beginning 1st BC to end of 3rd AD Sparse evidence for occupation by the Roman Empire, unconfined to a specific stratigraphical event. A piece of Sinopian pottery has been found and some coins marked with Constantine I who ruled 306 – 337 AD.

Beginning of 4th to end of 6th Renovation and additional construction of Archaeopolis to include bath houses, water cisterns, kilns for workshops and churches. Archaeopolis is the stage for the battle between the Persians, led by Mermeroes and the Byzantines, led by Odonachus and Babas in 551 AD, during the war of 540-562. Coins found on second level marked with Flavius Mauricius Tiberius who ruled 582 – 602 AD. Human, possibly Christian burials found in the lower town near the 7 Martyrs Church.

17th – 19th Site occupied by a branch of the princely Dadiani family, who repaired/rebuilt some of the standing remains and conducted small scale amateur archaeology.

10th – 11th Period indicated by glazed green pottery. 40 Martyrs Church reconstructed. Mid 8th Nokalakevi destroyed by the invading Arab general Murvan Ibn-Muhammad (later caliph).

Beginning of 8th The Byzantines besiege Archaeopolis unsuccessfully, attempting to recover Lazika from the Arabs; coincides with the first iconoclastic period.

I was told that Irish archaeologists are involved, and come back every Spring to continue their work. I took some photos, but as it was close to dusk, the quality is not great. Here is a satellite photo.

The Eastern entrance:
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The wall, with some archaeological work beside it:

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The River Tekhuri, looking south:

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You really do wonder what might be under all those trees. The ruins look untouched.

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The city had easy access to the river via this tunnel, which remains intact. Pretty long tunnel too.

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The troublesome Caucasus

As ever, the Economist has an excellent analysis of the situation in the Caucasus. They mention many of the strategic and historical interests in the region that I heard directly from Georgians themselves. The situation is extremely complex, and via translator it was explained to me over several days.

The map they use is extremely good too. I actually stayed the night in Supsa, just south of Poti, and saw markers in the ground where the pipeline they mark is placed.

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The Economist suggests a process to help Armenia and Azerbaijan to move closer to the West.

Two keys could help to unlock this process. The first is to dangle the prospect, however distant, that all three countries might one day qualify as members of the EU. As experience in eastern Europe has shown, this is the best way to lure countries towards reform. The EU may offer a better route than NATO membership, which is both more problematic and further off after Georgia’s war.

The second key is to work with Turkey, which as the only NATO country in the region is well-placed to offset Russia’s influence. Shortly after the war, Turkey launched a proposed “Caucasus Stability and Co-operation Platform”, which even the Russians applauded. Turkish companies are active in the region, conspicuously so in Georgia and Azerbaijan and (in disguise) even in Armenia. If the Turks can improve relations with Armenia, including opening the border, they could play a more constructive role in the Caucasus than the Russians have ever done.

But both Turkey and the three Caucasus countries will need encouragement. That could start with a firm EU decision to back the Nabucco gas pipeline. It would also help if the Caucasus countries were less nationalist and better at working together. Paradoxically, Georgia’s war with Russia may enhance the chances of peaceful progress in the whole region.

We shall see.

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

I visited the former Russian Embassy (it was reduced to a consulate while I was there) in Tbilisi a couple of weeks ago. Across the street, boards are littered with anti-Russian grafitti, while directly outside the consulate people had dumped various forms of household waste and litter.

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russian consulate, Tbilisi

Russia pulled their ambassador, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, and pretty much all diplomatic activity at the building has apparently ceased.

Saakashvili's Camp David – Borjomi

Don’t ask me how I got access.

When I was in Borjormi I managed to get into the grounds of the summer residence of the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakasvhili. The house was formerly occupied by Eduard Shevardnadze, and before Soviet times it was a Dacha of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov Dynasty.

The residence was where Saakashvili and his Ukrainian counterpart signed the Borjomi Declaration recently.

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No photos of the interior I’m afraid – it was off limits.

Russian advances into Georgia

I did a quick sketch of how far Russian forces advanced into Georgia during the war. It was not widely reported that Russian armour went as far south as Borjormi. Several witnesses told me this happened.

Apparently the Russian forces reached the outskirts of the town and said they had made a mistake, they then returned to Khashuri, where Russian forces remained stationed for several days. That was the limit of the Russian advances westwards from Ossetia, a distance of about 70km from Tskhinvali. To the east, Russian forces advanced as far as the small river named Lekhura at Okhami, just south of Samtavisi on the map.

When you are driving on the road from Tbilisi to Gori, at a certain point the tyres make a distinctive noise on the road as they make contact with the imprint left by armoured tracks in the tarmac.

In Western Georgia, troops advanced as far as Poti and Senaki, and stationed troops in Zugdidi. They bombed the airbase in Senaki, and did send troops into the base. They began destroying barracks, but I was told that upon realising that the families of Georgian soldiers lived on base, they soon left, and did not loot or harm any civilians living on the base.

Russian advances into Georgia

What happened to the Georgian navy?

Ever since the August war in Georgia, various stories have circulated via many media outlets about what exactly happened the Georgian navy. Danger Room provided extensive coverage and links about the stories circulating. It included the blog post, Inside the battle for the Black Sea.

Many blogs have covered the story, as have forums. Many reports were contradictory and seemed at least to be sketchy.

When I visited Poti on September 25 I was told something of a different story. I also took some photos of the damage done by Russian forces. One of the damaged Georgian ships has since been removed from the water, and two others remain partially submerged.

The thrust of the story told is at best patchy. Names of ships have been confused (as is natural in fast moving situations), and some appear to have been mistaken. I wanted to get to try and get a clearer picture of what happened the Georgian navy, so I went and asked.

I spoke to Captain Badri Putkaradze of the Georgian military in Poti, who was one of the Georgian soldiers to return from Iraq during the war, and who had previously served aboard both the Georgian flagship, Dioskuria, and aboard the Soviet-era missile boat Tbilisi. He was not in Poti during the engagement, but I believe him to be high-ranking enough to report accurately what happened that day.

I asked him about the apparent engagement with Russian forces, and an alleged attack on the Russian ship Moskva. Putkaradze openly laughed at the suggestion. He said Georgian ships stood no chance against Russian forces and “turned 180 degrees” without engaging them at all. Indeed he went as far as to say that the Georgian Navy simply didn’t have the capability to fire missiles at Russian ships, and that to do so would be suicide.

He also said that Georgian ships were ordered to escape to the south, to Batumi. The Soviet-era missile boat, the Tbilisi, did not escape to Batumi, but remained docked at Poti. “Why did this ship not go to Batumi?,” I asked. “Its engines were not working,” Putkaradze said. “We had to leave it here.”

Wired reported:

The Georgian ship sunk was not the Tbilisi, as the sailor suggests. Rather it was the Georgian patrol boat P-21 Georgy Toreli. A night battle in the littoral, the Georgians armed only with guns, yet the little flotilla of four was able to get in close to Moskva and start a little fire. Covering its withdraw, the Mirazh missile boat is reported to have sunk the ship in only 90 seconds in what was reported as 300 meters of water.

According to Al Jazeera, the Coast Guard base in Poti was attacked with artillery on Wednesday after the cease-fire, destroying the rest of the coast guard ships in port. The Tbilisi, which was reported to be in bad condition prior to the war, was sunk in that attack.

Indeed the Tbilisi was in bad condition. Some reports say the Tbilisi was hit by a missile, this report says it was hit by artillery. The damage was certainly extensive. But it is clear from the other two ships that charges were used to destroy them. I do not know how the Tbilisi was destroyed.

As you can see from these photos of one ship recently removed from the water, it appears to be a plain old charge. I cannot confirm the name of this ship but the Georgian script is visible on the top. UPDATE: A reader has said it is called the Tskaltubo.

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Here is an earlier photo which appears to show the same ship (in the background) before it was removed from the water. Only the top part of the bridge is visible, which coincides with the marks left by the water on the pictures I took:

The Dioskuriya was also destroyed the same way, as can be seen from the widely circulated video:

Here are some photos I took of the remains:

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Incidentally I was told that the Dioskuriya is too heavy (thanks to the water) to lift with any cranes available to the Georgians. Apparently the US is paying for a crane to be dispatched from Turkey to lift the ship from the harbour.

As for the Tbilisi, the damage was far more visible. Putkaradze was unable to say why this was so, “crazy Russians”, he said.

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I can’t say how the Tbilisi was destroyed. But maybe the pics will help get an answer.

Stories, well more like rumours, have circulated that the entire Georgian Navy and Coast Guard was more or less destroyed. This is untrue. The same day, I photographed these ships docked in Poti:

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That’s three coast guard ships appearing undamaged. In the background of this photo you can see damage to the hull of the coast guard vessel.

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But that’s not all. Before Captain Putkaradze told me the story about Georgian ships fleeing to Batumi, I had not told him that I had been there the day before and taken these photos:

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It’s two Georgian Navy patrol vessels, and one smaller patrol craft. I assume these are some or all of the ships Putkaradze was referring to when he talked about the retreat. Here is talking to me about the Tbilisi, in the background.

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The story has been confused and I can’t confirm or deny much of it. But from what I was told, there was no concerted effort by Georgian forces to engage the Russian Navy. As Information Dissemination noted, there was no clear visible damage to the Moskva. That is possibly because no damage was done.

I cannot say what happened to the P-21 Georgy Toreli, which is said to have been destroyed by a Russian missile. But I will endeavour to find out soon.

You can look at more of the photos I took in Poti here. And look at photos I took in Gori tank base here.

Gori tank base bombed by Russia

Well my time in Georgia is over, and now it’s on to Oktoberfest. I hope the upload the bulk of my photos there, but I have already uploaded an initial set to Flickr. In it I was allowed access to the Georgian tank base in Gori, bombed by Russian forces. In the hills behind the base there are up to 10 destroyed vehicles. The base is also right beside the tower blocks accidentally bombed by Russian forces, which were made infamous by various photos.

Here is a sample:

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Evidence of the Russian looting/searching for documents. They left quite a mess.

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A safe door pulled off by Russian forces:

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Four Georgian tanks destroyed as they made for higher ground. Most likely the result of aerial attack.

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A pair of Russian made boots:

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And the Georgian soldiers who were kind enough to let me look around, albeit following in the footsteps of my guide for fear of unexploded munitions.

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The full set is here
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